Nkandla: The racist compound

COMPOUND: (noun)

  • an open area enclosed by a fence, for example around a factory or large house or within a prison
  • (South African) area containing single-sex living quarters for migrant workers, especially miners.

It must have seemed a good idea at the time, in the heat of battle, as it were. "She's called the president's house a 'compound', a word used for hostels and migrant workers," said presidential spokesperson and firebrand Mac Maharaj during what amounted to a live debate with Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille. "She'd never use that for a white person's home."

It was an absurdity he would come to regret.

Why Maharaj decided to go on air on Talk Radio 702 alongside Zille in early November 2012 is in and of itself an interesting question. In the years before, and in the time since, Maharaj, the presidency and the government as a whole had been largely unavailable for questions, never mind debate. Government departments refused to provide information, politicians dodged questions, and President Jacob Zuma ignored the issue altogether.

But by the last quarter of 2012, the strategy of ignoring the issue was wearing thin. It was time to fight back – not with facts and figures, but with emotion.

On November 5 2012, Maharaj took to the airwaves to decry Zille and her party as racist. Ten days later, Zuma expressed much the same sentiment (though far more obliquely) during a memorable question session in Parliament when the president spoke, in a tone alternating between outrage and disappointment, about how aggrieved he felt, and how he took exception to some of the questions being asked about Nkandla.

"People are speaking without knowing, saying I have spent so much of the government's money. I have never done so," railed Zuma. "It is unfair, but I do not want to use harsher words, because you believe that people like me cannot build a home."

It was a new spin on an old approach. Over the years various government departments, the ANC, and the presidency itself, had some success – mixed though it was – with the shoot-the-messenger approach: Nkandla was a creation of a tjatjarag (overeager) media.

Coverage of Nkandla was born into antagonism, three years before racism came into it directly, and the approach rarely wavered, although the details changed from instance to instance. The media were out to get Zuma, embarrass him, weaken the ANC, support the political opposition, were disrespectful of traditional values, urban-centric, lying, misrepresenting, misunderstanding, breaking various laws, and generally acting in a fashion unbecoming.

As evidence mounted, some of the specific accusations fell away, but the underlying theme continued in statements to Parliament, in media statements, and in speeches: on Nkandla, the media were being unfair.

Now, however, the media and the opposition were being racist, or – should one strain to interpret Zuma's words as not dealing with race – dismissive of a man from a rural backwater without much in the way of formal education.

In hindsight, it was an approach doomed to failure.

Three years into the story, Zuma's primary defence was still ignorance, and that was starting to look mighty disingenuous. In his parliamentary answer, Zuma again said he did not know how much various aspects of the Nkandla project had cost, that he simply did not know where the money had gone, just shy of three years after the first questions had been raised.

As an academic paper on the coverage of Nkandla would put it in early 2014, to maintain such ignorance "over the time span of the coverage is scarcely becoming but also unconvincing. Why, it must be asked, did [Zuma] not address his ignorance in order to make a public statement consistent with the responsibilities of his office?"

Bringing race into the mix would, in and of itself, also be neither becoming nor convincing. Adding race on top of ignorance just compounded the mistrust.

Timing and context aside, choosing "compound" as the exemplar of racist motivation was also ill-advised, as Maharaj would soon discover.

Had it remained just a passing comment, made off the cuff in a medium that is more transient than most, the "compound' debacle would not have been all that embarrassing to Maharaj and Zuma. Then the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) came to the party.

"You are hereby notified that, with immediate effect, President Zuma's Nkandla home should be referred to as the President's, or Mr Zuma's, 'Nkandla residence', and not a 'compound' or 'homestead' or any other such term," read a memo issued to staff by SABC head of news Jimi Matthews, shortly after Maharaj decried the term, and leaked almost immediately. "Please also refrain from using imported terminology in reporting on the controversy surrounding the infrastructural developments around the residence, such as 'Nkandlagate', 'Zumaville' and such like."

On "Nkandlagate", Matthews had a point. In analysis and interpretive journalism it is great, and entirely justified shorthand, but for a news organisation that has old-school ideas about objectivity it could be troublesome. But on "compound" and "homestead", it looked as though the SABC was taking marching orders from the presidency, letting Maharaj police its language. With political influence invariably suspected, and over the years occasionally plainly observed at the SABC, the combination was unfortunate.

The SABC, like just about every news outfit that ever touched the issue, had used "compound" in many instances for many years before November 2012 to refer to Nkandla. So, a quick review of government documents showed, had the government itself. The department of rural development and land reform had not shied away from using the term when speaking about clusters of dwellings, the department of public works had happily referred to the "security compound" that forms part of Nkandla, the term had been used in Parliament to refer to Nkandla, as well as to high-end gated communities, and so on and so forth.

If Maharaj had expected sympathy from the public, or self-censorship from the media, he must have been greatly disappointed. In comments online, letters to editors, in calls to radio stations and idle conversation far and wide, there was either outrage at what was seen as a cynical ploy to divert the Nkandla debate, at the SABC's pliant attitude, or just general mirth at such a ham-fisted bit of spin.

And a few months later, even the ANC started quietly reintroducing the phrase "Nkandla compound" in its daily roundup of news, as the communications strategy shifted from ignorance and victimhood to innocence – an approach that would not be without its bumps and false starts either.

This is an edited excerpt from Nkandla: The Great Unravelling, a Mail & Guardian long-form ­journalism project to be published as an e-book on Kindle and other major platforms on March 28.

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